English architect, arguably one of the greatest since Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor. Trained in the office of the younger Dance and at the Royal Academy Schools, he joined the office of Henry Holland (1772), where he gained valuable experience. In 1778, having been awarded the King's Travelling Studentship, he went to Italy where he met several influential Englishmen on the Grand Tour. Led to expect employment by the erratic and enormously rich Lord Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and later Earl of Bristol (1730–1803), he foolishly ended (1780) his stay in Rome to travel to Ireland where he hoped to design the Bishop's house at Downhill, Co. Londonderry, but this came to nothing. He spent the next four years making good his losses by carrying out small works, some in East Anglia, helped by acquaintances who had heard of his disappointment. Among his designs at this time were lodges and a rustic dairy at Hamels Park, Bunting-ford, Herts. (1781–3), and a new house, Letton Hall, Norfolk (1783–9). He built up a reputation for probity and competence, exhibited at the Royal Academy, made a good marriage, and carried out alterations and additions to Holwood House, Kent (1786–95), for William Pitt (1759–1806), cousin of one of Soane's friends from his Roman trip, and Prime Minister (1783–1801). In 1788, the year in which he intended to publish Plans, Elevations, and Sections of Buildings Erected in the Counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, etc. (it appeared in 1789), Soane, through his connection with Pitt, gained the Surveyorship of the Bank of England after the death of Sir Robert Taylor. This appointment gave him status and security, and set him up as one of the leading English architects. The death of his wife's uncle in 1790 brought a legacy that enabled him to build a house at 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London (1792–4), and start the great collections of works of art and books that form the contents of his Museum today. Other important official appointments followed.
Security also enabled him to evolve an individual style that, while rooted in Classicism, was yet original, and consisted of certain themes. These included the extensive use of segmental arches; shallow saucer-domed ceilings on segmental arches carried on piers and sometimes lit from above; crossvaults carried on piers; top-lit volumes rising through two floors; a primitive, stripped language of architecture, sometimes featuring Orders such as the Paestum Doric, but more often the replacement of the Orders by a series of incised ornaments cut into unadorned simple elements; very careful attention to lighting, often involving mirrors (plain and convex) and tinted glass; and, above all, an obsession with the furniture of death in the form of sarcophagi, cinerary urns, oppressive vaulted spaces, and the like.
Among his greatest works was the Bank of England in London, with the Stock Office (1792–3—reconstructed by Higgins Gardner, 1986–8) and the Rotunda (begun 1796) two of the most remarkable spaces within the complex, both treated without reference to the Orders, but with the Classicism reduced to simple grooves. The exterior was largely a blank wall, enlivened by recesses and colonnades of the Corinthian Order from the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Virtually nothing of his work at the Bank survived within the exterior wall after the drastic alterations by Baker in the 1920s and 1930s.